You didn't think Bono would allow himself to be outdone, did you?
In a year of state-of-the-art pop spectacles by the likes of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift — and in a city that runs on glitz — U2's famously uninhibited frontman unveiled a new show with his band Friday night at a venue whose whole purpose is to blow every mind that enters.
Sphere, just off the Las Vegas Strip behind the Venetian resort and casino, is a hulking orb covered inside and out with more than half a million square feet of programmable video screens said to be the highest-resolution in the world. The arena, which seats nearly 18,000, cost $2.3 billion to build and took two years longer than expected to finish, a feat that led Bono to describe its mastermind, the New York sports and real estate mogul James Dolan, as "one mad bastard."
Now U2 has christened the place with a production that enshrines the idea of excess.
"What a fancy pad," Bono said in a rare moment of understatement not long into Friday's two-hour concert. "Look at all this stuff." Behind him — above him and around him too — Sphere's domed walls were aglow with an ultra-crisp digital collage jumbling together images of showgirls and neon and a certain kingly entertainer who'd preceded U2 in the Nevada desert. "Elvis has definitely not left this building," he added, relishing a line he'd probably been waiting weeks to get off.
U2's residency, which is scheduled to run for 25 dates through mid-December, is built around the band's 1991 album "Achtung Baby," which it played in full, albeit in two halves and not in the songs' original order.
Why? For one thing, "Achtung Baby" followed "The Joshua Tree," the late-'80s blockbuster that U2 commemorated on a successful 30th anniversary stadium tour in 2017 and 2019, after which the band stayed off the road amid the COVID pandemic. Yet the later LP, with its murky dance beats and noisy guitar textures, also showcased a legacy act reaching for reinvention as rock music was changing around it.
By focusing on an old album, even perhaps their most daring, the members of U2 — Bono, the Edge on guitar, bassist Adam Clayton and Bram van den Berg filling in for Larry Mullen Jr. on drums — risk looking like they've given up the fight to stay relevant — that they're now merely in the business of revisiting past glories like so many of their 60- and 70-something peers. (In March, the band released a 40-track collection of rerecorded classics titled, uh, "Songs of Surrender.")
Certainly the choice distinguishes this show from Beyoncé's Renaissance tour, which draws predominately from her latest album, and from Swift's Eras tour, which makes the point that somehow she still hasn't hit a creative peak.
But maybe "Achtung Baby" is just a delivery device, in a post-pandemic age when live music feels more important than it has in decades, for a new way to think about performance.
U2 has history in that endeavor, not least with its early-'90s Zoo TV tour behind "Achtung Baby," which cemented video as a crucial component of the modern pop concert. Still, this production sets a new benchmark for the interplay between humans and technology, as in a truly stunning sequence where a cascade of numbers and letters seems to turn the cavernous Sphere into a much smaller box and another where a photorealistic Las Vegas landscape almost tricks your eye into believing you're outside. There was also a goofy if technically impressive bit on Friday that had Bono pushing a fan in a real rope swing attached to an illustrated balloon. (Among the artists U2 commissioned to create the show's visuals are Es Devlin, Marco Brambilla, John Gerrard and the band's trusty producer Brian Eno, who conceptualized the turntable-like stage.)
The concert's story, if there is one, is hard to discern. There's loosely connected stuff about showbiz and Vegas and the illusory promise of American enterprise; there are moments when Bono seems to be making points about climate change and border politics. U2 is also putting its music — beyond "Achtung Baby," the show featured a middle section of songs from "Rattle and Hum" and a closing set of hits including "With or Without You" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" — in conversation with the songs and artists that helped shape the band: Bono sang a bit of Prince's "Purple Rain" in "One" and lines from a couple of Beatles tunes in "Beautiful Day"; U2 covered parts of Thin Lizzy's "Dancing in the Moonlight" — "That's for all the Irish in the house," Bono said — and "My Way" by Frank Sinatra via Sid Vicious.
Paul McCartney was among the celebs who attended Friday, along with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Katy Perry, Flavor Flav (!) and assorted music-industry executives, whom Bono thanked by name at the end of the show — one reminder that Sphere is as much a part of this gig as U2. (Rumor has it that Harry Styles, who shares managers with U2, will be next to perform in the space.)
But more than any defined narrative, what U2 is offering is the sheer obliterating pleasure of sensory overload: a barrage of eye-popping sights and sharply rendered sounds that finds a kind of ecstasy in submission.
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